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15 Oct 1997 : Column WA193

Written Answers

Wednesday, 15th October 1997.

Judicial Appointments

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What changes they propose to make to the current system of judicial appointments.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): It is essential in the public interest that the judiciary at every level is of the highest possible quality. Appointments will continue to be made strictly on merit, after the independent views of the judiciary and the legal profession have been taken into consideration by the Lord Chancellor; and appointment to full-time office normally made only after satisfactory service in part-time judging.

Nevertheless, improvements can be made. I intend to present an annual report to Parliament on the operation of the judicial appointments system. The first report will cover the period 1998-99. I also intend to end the system of appointment to the High Court bench only by invitation and to invite applications for appointments to the High Court bench, so that all with judicial ambitions can be assured that their cases are properly considered.

I propose to ensure appropriate flexibility in part-time sittings arrangements where, for example, women or men have taken career breaks for family reasons. My officials are developing plans to ensure that those who sit part-time may be able to concentrate their sittings into a shorter period of time than at present. By this means these career breaks will not, so far as practicable, impede career development.

I intend to increase the upper age limit for appointment as Assistant Recorder from 50 to 53 in future competition rounds. Raising the age limit to 53 will widen the pool of potential applicants. The normal period of service as an Assistant Recorder and Recorder, before appointment to the Circuit bench, is five to seven years and an appointment to the Circuit bench at or around 60 would enable the judge to serve for a minimum of 10 years before retiring at 70.

In the longer term I intend to review whether an Ombudsman should be appointed with power to examine fully complaints from anyone who feels unfairly treated by the appointments process; and to review the appointment procedures for deputy High Court judge appointments. I have recently appointed two solicitors, direct from the profession, to act as deputy High Court judges. This has not happened before. I also intend to review the scope to improve arrangements for appraisal of performance of the part-time judiciary, not least to improve the assessments of their performance which contribute to my decisions on applications for full-time office.

Since becoming Lord Chancellor I have decided to involve in the process of shortlisting judicial candidates for interviews both judges and lay members, who will

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have, in advance, a summary of the views expressed in consultation about every applicant. An additional 28 lay members have been appointed to assist in the shortlisting and interviewing of candidates for a range of judicial appointments including those of Circuit judge, District judge and Assistant Recorder. I have taken steps to promote work on equal opportunities, in conjunction with the legal profession, which I will announce shortly. I have required that any allegation of misconduct made in the course of consultation about a judicial candidate must be specific and subject to disclosure to the candidate.

So far as the magistracy is concerned, I have increased for the first time the upper age limit for appointment as a lay magistrate to 65, so as to draw from the pool of the age group 55-65 to achieve a better social and political balance on the bench. This age group includes many who may have taken early retirement. I have also opened the magistracy to blind candidates on an experimental basis.

I believe that these positive measures will strengthen the openness, flexibility and effectiveness of the arrangements for judicial appointments. I do not rule out further measures in due course. I earlier announced [Official Report 23 June 1997 col. WA 145] that I proposed to consult on the merits of establishing a Judicial Appointments Commission. However, in the light of the measures that I have listed above; the resources of my department; and the other substantial priorities facing my department, including a very heavy workload connected with legal aid and civil justice reforms, I have decided not to proceed with further work on a possible commission, but to concentrate on making those changes I regard as most urgent.

Sex Education in Primary Schools

Lord Grantley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the main statutory requirements regarding the provision of sex education in primary schools, and the provision of a sex education policy by primary school governors; and what is their policy on these matters.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): In maintained primary schools, the governing bodies have the responsibility of considering whether or at what stage to offer sex education. They must keep an up-to-date written statement of the policy they choose to adopt, which must be available to parents.

Voluntary Aided and Special Agreement schools are not specifically required to consider providing sex education but are required to have regard to the policy of the local education authority as to the secular curriculum in its schools.

Sex education in all maintained schools must be provided in such a manner as to encourage young people to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life. Parents of a child may, if they wish, withdraw their child from all or part of the sex education provided outside the National Curriculum.

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Members of Parliament: Service in Armed Forces

Lord Hill-Norton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many male and female Members of Parliament are, or have in the last five years been, members of the Armed Forces or their Reserves.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): The Government do not hold the information requested. Serving members of the regular Armed Forces and certain officers in the Territorial Army are not, however, permitted to stand as candidates at parliamentary elections.

Joint Services Command and Staff College

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why, during consideration of the Greenwich site for further accommodation, was the use of the Dreadnought Hospital and the former nurses' home, both of which listed buildings within the proposed World Heritage site have for some time been empty, not considered.

Lord Gilbert: The Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital and Devonport Nurses' Home were among the Greenwich buildings considered as potential accommodation for the JSCSC.

House of Lords: References to Speakers

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked the Leader of the House:

    Whether he will take steps to discourage the use, in speeches and questions, of the phrase "the noble Minister".

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): The proper ways of referring to speakers in debates are set out in the Companion to Standing Orders, which is issued under the authority of the Procedure Committee. I would accordingly invite the noble Lord to put his concern to that committee.

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Lord Beaumont of Whitley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will use the present review of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to strengthen their role in planning and ensure that no future holiday village developments are allowed in such areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): The review of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) to which the noble Lord refers is a consultation being carried out by the Countryside Commission and looking at the funding and management of AONBs. It does not deal with planning matters.

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There are well established national policies for the protection of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The primary objective of the AONB designation is conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape. Local authorities should reflect this objective in their structure and local plans, and in development control. In general, policies and development control decisions affecting AONBs should favour conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape. In all cases the environmental effects of new proposals will be a major consideration, though it will also be appropriate to have regard to the economic and social well-being of the areas.

A.127: Improvements

Lord Braine of Wheatley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What improvements have been made to the A.127 between Basildon and Southend-on-Sea during the current year.

Baroness Hayman: Prior to 27 March 1997, the A.127 between the M.25 and the borough boundary of Southend-on-Sea was classed as a trunk road and as such was the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Transport. On the 27 March the road was de-trunked and the responsibility for the road was passed to Essex County Council as the local highway authority.

As part of the de-trunking process a number of minor improvement works were carried out to the road between Basildon and Southend-on-Sea. These included resurfacing works, drainage works, and cycletrack reconstruction. The total cost of these works was £372,000.

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